One year ago, the Supreme Court of the United States officially ruled that banning same-sex marriage was unconstitutional. This ruling struck down same-sex marriage bans in 13 states, including Michigan, where I live with my wife, and allowed us to be legally married. Because legal marriage comes with a myriad of rights and privileges (I like to describe those rights and privileges as a “gift basket”), the SCOTUS’ ruling improved the lives of many, many queer families in this country. Particularly for same-sex couples who want to marry and have children, it’s a definite improvement. But even though it has helped people, the SCOTUS' same-sex marriage ruling isn't enough for me, and I find it troubling that so many people seem to view it as the one big win that should be enough for all of us.
Whenever I talk about same-sex marriage, I like to point out that I do not use the term “marriage equality.” This isn’t an accident. The fact is that, however you feel about it, the term “marriage equality” is a bit of a misnomer. Far from being an institution that is equally accessible to everyone, marriage is still a narrowly defined institution that leaves many people out, only now it’s simply been expanded to allow for a larger group. Allowing gay people to marry same-sex partners does not actually make marriage “equal,” and I believe that it’s supremely hypocritical to pretend it does. Marriage, at least as a legal institution, is the way that our government validates and rewards certain kinds of relationships (long-term, romantic, monogamous) over other relationships. The fact that they’ve recently taken “heterosexual” off the list of requirements doesn’t change that fact one lick.
One of the most obvious examples of how legal marriage is still patently unequal is the case of polyamorous and polygamous people. I may have the right to marry my wife now, but those who find themselves in love with two or more totally consenting adults are still unable to marry all of their partners. And far from being apologetic about this fact, in general, the majority of the “marriage equality” movement has chosen to celebrate it. Honestly, this would make me angry no matter what, because I don’t just care about my own rights, I also care about other people. But in my case, it’s also personal.
My wife and I both identify as polyamorous. While we are fully committed to one another, we’re also free to date and love whomever we choose. At the moment, neither of us is seeing anyone else (hi, taking care of a 1-year-old is actually really time consuming, it turns out!) but we don’t consider that to be a permanent state. The fact that if, in the future, we met an amazing person and wanted to welcome them fully into our life and our family, they would never be eligible for that gift basket of rights and privileges, is an injustice. And it’s supremely hypocritical to rail against the absurdity of the “one man, one woman” ideology while also stating that “obviously marriage is only supposed to be between two people,” especially given that, historically, that hasn’t always been the case.
Legally, I can be turned away from housing, a job, or even medical treatment just because of my orientation.
I also find the focus on same-sex marriage as the crux of the LGBTQIA+ movement troubling and unsatisfactory for another reason. Too often, when people talk about the work of the LGBTQIA+ movement, they’re talking about things that primarily only benefit gay and lesbian people and exploit the labor of everyone else. Transgender women (and especially transgender women of color) have been on the frontlines of the “gay rights” movement since the very beginning, and yet we repeatedly throw them under the bus. Transgender and non-binary people have almost no protection against discrimination and also are more likely to be the victims of violence than the rest of us.
According to information available on Rape Response Services Online, 50 percent of transgender people experience sexual violence at some point in their lifetime, and the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs (NCAVP) reported in 2010 that lesbian, gay, bisexual, and queer people were three times more likely to report sexual assault than heterosexual individuals. Transgender women of color face the highest murder rate of any group, and in 2013 the NCAVP reported more than two thirds of homicide victims were transgender women — and 67 percent of homicide victims were transgender women of color. Sit with that knowledge for a minute, and then try to tell me that gay marriage is some kind of finish line for the LGBTQIA+ community. And now, many transgender people aren’t even safe using the bathroom.
Meanwhile, it is still perfectly legal to discriminate against gay people in most of this country, including where I live. Legally, I can be turned away from housing, a job, or even medical treatment just because of my orientation. But the struggle for anti-discrimination clauses wasn’t as flashy and popular (no cake for signing an apartment lease, I guess) as the marriage one, so it got put on the back-burner once again.
If you really want to know what I want from the LGBTQIA+ rights movement, it's this: I want to live in a world where my transgender friends are just as safe as my marriage is.
Last year, I gave birth to a beautiful and incredible child. He’s everything that his other mom and I could have ever dreamed of, and we are so happy to have him in our lives. As thrilled as I am to have him, though, I’m also super aware of the fact that I don’t know who he is going to be. My wife and I work extremely hard to make sure that he understands that he is free to be whoever he authentically is, and that includes orientation and gender. Though I would probably want to offer him that freedom no matter what, I’m even more aware of this because the sperm donor we used just happens to be transgender.
If you really want to know what I want from the LGBTQIA+ rights movement, it's this: I want to live in a world where my transgender friends are just as safe as my marriage is. I want to live in a world where my kid knows his rights will be protected no matter what gender he identifies as. I want to live in a world where he can be as weird and wonderful (or normal and wonderful) as he wants to be, without the looming threat of discrimination and violence. But I don’t live in that world, so when I think about that for too long, it makes me absolutely sick.
Instead, I live in a world where queer people are still dying. I live in a world where trans people, but especially trans women of color, are murdered at an alarming rate simply for the crime of existing as who they are. I live in a world where it is perfectly legal for a landlord or an employer to turn me away just because I’m queer. I live in a heartbreaking, gut-wrenching, cruel world where LGBTQIA+ people are not safe, but it is a world where I can have a marriage certificate. We keep the marriage certificate in a folder along with other important documents, and while it is definitely important, it isn’t nearly enough.
During the fight to legalize same-sex marriage, many people assured those of us who had very real concerns that it was only one step in the fight for our rights. Transgender people were told to sit down and wait their turn, and when I pointed out that as a queer woman with limited income, having fair access to housing was actually more important to me than a marriage license, I was told that I was just quibbling about the order we were fighting for these things in. Advocates told me we’d get to all of those other things, but we were just doing the marriage one first, and I shouldn’t be so divisive. Now that we did the marriage thing, it’s time to roll up our sleeves and get to work on all those other issues.